WASHINGTON (Legal Newsline) – Alleged risks to water supplies posed by chemicals commonly used by firefighters and the military were discussed at a House subcommittee hearing Wednesday as lawmakers sounded anxious for a regulatory measure.
Environment Subcommittee Chair Rep. Harley Rouda (D-California) began the hearing by explaining what he feels are some of the dangers that per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) have presented around the country, and that while these dangers have been known for some time, they still have not been dealt with.
“EPA has the authority to regulate PFAS' chemicals,” said Rouda. “And, as we sit here today, it has yet to do so.”
PFAS are a group of man-made chemicals that includes perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) and others. PFAS can be found in many common items, including food-packaging materials and aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF), a highly efficient type of fire suppressant agent.
But a rush toward regulation may be misguided, according to Chicago-area chemist and environmental engineer Rich Trzupek.
He said that when a single compound is isolated and determined to be cancer-causing, the average observer might well believe that this "one thing" is a real danger, when the reality is there are literally thousands of compounds that could be described the exact same way that people are exposed to all the time.
Trzupek said there are legitimate concerns if high concentrations of PFAS are found in groundwater, but added that doesn't appear to be what's driving heightened concern in this situation.
"Lawyers are trying to grab onto this, hoping it's the next mesothelioma," Trzupek said. "They're trying to draw a direct line to this particular chemical, as usual."
At the subcommittee hearing, worries about water supplies were raised by Rep. James Comer (R-Kentucky).
“Most people have been exposed to PFAS in their lifetime,” Comer said, explaining that over the course of the past three decades, chemicals have reached portions of the nation’s water supply. “Potential drinking water contamination is frightening for any community.”
The hearing followed bipartisan legislation introduced in both the House and Senate that would require the EPA to classify PFAS as hazardous.
Rep. Brian K. Fitzpatrick (R-Pennsylvania) said, “Regulating PFAS effectively and responsibly will not be easy,” but stressed it is high priority as well as important for protecting the nation’s water supply.
Dave Ross, assistant administrator for the Office of Water, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and Maureen Sullivan, deputy assistant Secretary of Defense for Environment, U.S. Department of Defense, took the stand next and answered a long line of questioning from Congress, led by Rep. Katie Hill (D-California) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York).
Hill spoke of her background of growing up on a military base with a firefighter father that worked closely with these very same chemicals.
“I’m very concerned about the EPA’s delayed response to the PFAS health crisis,” said Hill. “The EPA has still not regulated these chemicals. So, Mr. Ross, do you believe that the PFAS health crisis is a national emergency?”
Ross answered that the EPA believes the issue is "major."
"This is an emerging issue and we have been working at it aggressively,” Ross said. “Yeah, we agree it’s a major issue and we are focused as one of the highest priorities of the agency.”
Ocasio-Cortez brought a recent toxicology profile of PFAS chemicals into consideration, asking both Ross and Sullivan if they were familiar with the report and its findings being linked to thyroid disease. Sullivan denied any knowledge of the findings within the report, only acknowledging the report's general existence.
Ross noted the report’s findings of an increased risk of thyroid disease as well as the increased risk of decreased fertility, liver damage and both testicular and kidney cancers.
Ocasio-Cortez later added, “I think it’s important to acknowledge here that people are suffering and some of them are here in Washington with us today.”
Trzupek said there is "great danger" when Congress gets involved in trying to regulate a single compound, saying it can lead to "chaos" and "anarchy...it is troubling."